Making politics more civil

During the State of the Union, President Obama called for a better politics, one where we share ideas, discuss differences and make compromises.

I think everyone can agree this is a good idea but it seems further away each day. It’s something I think a lot about and I’ve become convinced that part of the problem is that we’ve made politics into the third rail of conversation.

How can we expect politicians to speak to each other civility on these issues if we can’t do it with our own friends and family.
Disagreement is natural, discussion useful, and empathy imperative. How can we do that if we decide that the big issues are off limit for discussion?

I saw this having had these conversations all my life with my own family. Sometimes there is yelling, there is usually some head shaking, but in the end there is laughter.

I don’t think I realized that this wasn’t common place until somewhere in my twenties and, I’ll be honest, I still struggle with it. While it may seem odd that a politician hates small talk, I do. I would so much rather jump into a discussion on paid leave, property taxes or (my personal favorite) transportation funding. I want to hear what people think about it, maybe do some education but most importantly come up with a solution.
And I can’t do that by talking to people who agree with me. Well, I can but it will be a lopsided solution.

Understanding opposition is key to overcoming it. That means I need to hear why others think my idea is ridiculous or naive or just plain wrong. That’s how I refine it and make it work for everyone.

And that’s not just me as Mayor, that’s me as a person and it’s not a skill someone can learn once they decide they want a life in public policy. It’s a trait we learn in childhood. If we want our leaders to talk about the big issues in a meaningful way, we have to talk about them.

We have to show our children we can disagree on big issues and still have an enjoyable meal together. We have to show them that we can put aside the fact that you believe healthcare is optional and I think it’s key to the pursuit of happiness, to life, to our economy, to everything and then play a friendly game of volleyball (true story).

And, during these discussions, we will learn. We will learn that your friend’s situation built their opinion and maybe their story makes you think of a way to adjust to accommodate that. This is how compromise is built.

So, let’s stop the politics of personal destruction by removing politics from the third rail. At your next family dinner start a discussion on any topic, ease into it, set ground rules, no name calling, no personal attacks and then keep at it.

Together we can move beyond partisanship and find a road back to civil discourse.

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Cathleen Lewis
Cathleen, the Mayor of Lawrence Township & a full-time Public Affairs professional, counts her best job as being Mommy to Abigail (3 years) and Bridget (6 months ). A New Yorker originally, but Boston raised, Cathleen enjoys the challenge of raising the girls in a mixed household with her Yankee-fan husband Paul. She hopes to make up for the confusion by encouraging the family’s love of Rutgers football. She dreams of sharing her love of beaches, margaritas, music and adventure but is happy to squeeze in a family walk with the dog and a back yard BBQ these days. Formerly an avid reader and writer before work, life and children; Cathleen hopes she hasn’t lost her ability to capture thoughts through the written word but often can’t remember where the grocery list is.

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